Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Spicy Fish Soup in Penang

Georgetown, capital of the jungly Malaysian island of Penang, is steeped in a fusion of cultures, a legacy of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and Thai traders who settled here after the British set up shop during the 18th century. Colonial architecture aside, Penang’s hallmark is its Nonya cooking – a blend of Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisines, typified by pungent, hot-and-sour laksa.

Georgetown’s old core sits right at Penang’s northeastern tip, once defended by the now tropically moldering Fort Cornwallis, built by the British at the spot where they first landed on the island in 1786. The streets nearby are a cultural mosaic of the peoples that followed them: the waterfront, where the magnificently colonial Eastern & Oriental Hotel stares out to sea; Little India, with its Hindu temples and tandoori chicken shops; the Chinese district, a maze of pastel-colored, colonnaded shophouses (a cross-cultural product of Chinese and Portuguese influences) and ornate southern Chinese guildhalls; the mosques of modern Malaysia; and a scattering of Thai restaurants.

Penang-style laksa omits the coconut milk found in most Malaysian variants of the dish, for a much cleaner, more refreshing taste

In fact, restaurants of all sorts are everywhere, filling the heavy, humid air with competing aromas, though it’s around the markets and on the seafront – where people stroll in the evening, enjoying the cooling ocean breezes – that you’ll find true Nonya cooking.
Laksa – spicy Malaysian seafood soup – is a classic Nonya dish, using a Chinese-style noodle soup as a vehicle for Malay flavors and ingredients. It takes several regional forms, but Penang’s asam laksa stands out for being deliciously hot-and-sour. Scented galangal and lemongrass are used to flavor boiling fish stock, along with tart tamarind pulp – in Malay, tamarind is called “laksa,” which also means “sour.”
The flavored stock is poured over rice noodles, topped with a healthy sprinkle of fresh and dried chili peppers, cucumber and pineapple shreds, mint leaves, sliced shallots, and pink, finely chopped ginger-flower buds, before pungent shrimp sauce is finally drizzled in to link all the flavors together. It’s a powerful mix, enough to make any Westerner break a sweat.
Where to cool off? By day it gets pretty hot down on the coast, so heading inland to the heights of Penang Hill makes sense – especially as there’s a funicular railway to the forested top, where the climate is a few degrees cooler and everything is shaded.
Or, to give hot, tired feet a break, take a driving tour of the island – if you’re interested in wildlife, don’t miss the chance to see turtles nesting at Penang National Park. The lush Penang Botanic Gardens is another cooling sanctuary, with wonderful tropical trees, orchids, and ornamental ponds – and some bold rhesus monkeys. Much of the vegetation here has culinary uses, with helpful signage – from ginger to lychees, mangosteens to tamarind, it’s a fascinating way to “meet the cast” of the local cuisine.
Best Places to Eat Asam Laksa
Asam Laksa Stall inexpensive Locals will tell you that this humble stand, west of downtown Georgetown near the foot of Penang Hill, serves the best asam laksa in Penang – in which case, it’s probably the best asam laksa available anywhere. The local family running the show follows the classic recipe and, as everything is laid out at the front of the stand, you can follow the whole process, from chopping and slicing the ingredients through to spooning out the seasoned stock into the bowls of noodles and adding the garnishes. It’s all ridiculously cheap but, as portions are generous, you won’t need a second bowl. After your meal, be sure to visit the nearby Kek Lok Si, an absurd, pagoda-like temple on an octagonal base dating to 1893, full of brightly painted moldings and Buddhist statuary. On the hill behind the market is a spectacular, 100-foot- (30-m-) high bronze statue of Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of mercy, only completed in 2003.
Ayer Itam market, Jalan Ayer Itam; open noon–8 PM daily
Also in Penang
While the Asam Laksa Stall (above) might have a monopoly on the tastiest asam laksa, the Pesiaran Gurney Night Hawker Centre, around 1½ miles (3 km) west of central Georgetown – or rather the adjacent waterfront promenade – is definitely the most atmospheric place to eat it. Sit out here with sociable crowds and enjoy the dusk and fresh air, with excellent laksa served up fresh at dozens of street stands – just aim for the busiest one.
Also in Malaysia
In Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, Mark’s Asam Laksa in the Weld shopping center (+60 2487 0050; inexpensive) is a central branch of a cheerful restaurant chain serving good-quality asam laksa in comfortable, if not exciting, surroundings; try their hong dou sha (sweet red bean soup) as an unusual dessert.
Around the World
For a different take on what laksa is all about, head to East Coast Road in Singapore, where 328 Katong Laksa (+65 9732 8163; inexpensive) – along with hundreds of other restaurants across the city – serves the richer version with shrimp, coconut milk, and a heavier, more curry-oriented flavor. Katong’s menu stretches to little but laksa, but their otak-otak (spiced, minced fish steamed in banana-leaf packets) makes a good side dish.
Three Days in Penang
Penang is a beautiful island, but for those unused to it, the climate can be punishing.
Take it easy, and make plans for the day that are not too ambitious.
DAY ONE : Kick off a walking tour of Georgetown at the site of Fort Cornwallis, before plunging southwest into Chinatown and its shaded, arcaded shophouses. Stop to admire the riotously decorated Hindu Sri Mariamman Temple on the edge of Little India, then continue south to a knot of ornate Chinese clan temples – Khoo Kongsi on Lebuh Pantai is the most splendid. If you’ve still got the energy, head west to Cheong Fatt Tze mansion for a guided tour of this magnificent Chinese pile.
DAY TWO : Catch a bus or taxi to Georgetown’s western outskirts and easy, well-marked walking trails at the Botanic Gardens and adjacent Penang Hill.
DAY THREE : Save the third day for touring Penang’s north coast: aside from slightly overdeveloped beaches around Batu Ferringhi, there’s the delightful – if tiny – Penang National Park at Mukah Head, famed for its turtles and offering short jungle walks.
Getting to Penang
Georgetown can be reached via Penang International Airport, and by road bridge, train, and ferry from the Malaysian mainland.
Where to stay in Penang
The Old Penang Guesthouse (inexpensive) is characterful, and nicely restored.
The Cathay (moderate) is a faded but charming Chinese mansion. +60 4262 6271
Eastern & Oriental Hotel (expensive): grand, romantic, historic charm.
10 Pesara King Edward; +60 4261 6663
Nonya Cooking
Nonya cooking (also called Straits Chinese cooking) is a blend of Malay and southern Chinese themes, with an occasional nod to Thai and Indian cuisines. The blend is not always even, and both sides adore fish and seafood. The Chinese bring rice dumplings and “cakes,” noodle soups, and stir-fries to the party, but the Malay influence is clear in the use of chili-pepper sambal relishes, coconut milk, and cooking pastes made from complex blends of fresh and dried spices. The defining Nonya taste is a sharp, sour flavor rich in chili peppers, tamarind, lime juice, and noxious-smelling belachan shrimp paste (which mellows considerably when cooked) – of which asam laksa is the perfect example.

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